The race is on to save indie retailers – and one Derbyshire village is even looking to revive its high street by taking a leaf out of the supermarkets’ book. Rob Brown reports

When Norman Gibbs set up shop in Tideswell in 1958 he was one of five butchers in the Derbyshire village. Today, he’s alone. Back then, dozens of shopkeepers thronged Tideswell’s busy high street. Now just a handful survive. And times are tough for them all.

Tideswell presents a microcosm of what’s happening throughout the UK. A shocking 14% of town centre shops stood empty at the end of 2010, up from 6% in 2007, according to the Local Data Company. The problems of those still trying to make a living on the high street were only compounded in March by the steepest fall in sales ever recorded [BRC]. As The Grocer revealed last month, Downing Street is so keen to find a solution it’s enlisted TV’s ‘Queen of Shops’ Mary Portas to advise on the issue.

She’d do well to pay a visit to Tideswell, where the shopkeepers are fighting back. Armed with £400,000 of lottery cash, Taste Tideswell is one of six Village SOS projects whose progress is being covered in a BBC television series due to be aired in July. It’s early days, but those involved are hoping that by August, when the one-year project ends, 25% more villagers will be shopping locally than a year ago and that its shops will be in growth.

If they succeed, it will be a remarkable achievement, not least because they will have turned around the village’s fortunes by emulating the very retailers they believe have caused much of the damage the big box supermarkets.

Six miles across the dales, the town of Buxton boasts a Waitrose, a Morrisons and a Tesco presenting a challenge that until now Tideswell’s shopkeepers have struggled to rise to. Most of the village’s retailers blame the multiples for the steady decline in sales they’ve been experiencing.

“The supermarkets have done a lot of damage and they are taking a lot of business from people like ourselves,” says Rob Walker, who’s been running the Peak District Dairy for the past 10 years and opened the Peak District Dairy Farm Shop in Tideswell in 2008. “We have to find a niche. I wouldn’t say that I am the biggest fan of the supermarkets but we’ve had to learn to live with them.”

And even copy them. Paradoxically, the project has benefited from loosely modelling the village on the supermarket format, says Taste Tideswell director Tim Nicol. “I think of the high street as a supermarket in itself and all of the different shopkeepers as managers of their own particular categories,” he explains. “Too often, in the scramble for turnover people add products that are nowhere near their core offering and they end up becoming bazaars. When you have a collection of bazaars on a high street they lose their identities and end up competing against each other, meaning the high street is more likely to fail.”

The ethos in Tideswell is: let the supermarkets be generalists, independents should specialise. Take Tindalls bakery, which offers a range of local specialities, including Fidgety Pasties and Tidza Puds Tideswell’s answer to the Cornish pasty and the Bakewell tart; the farm shop, which specialises in local cheeses and ice creams; and Peaches, the village greengrocer, which boasts quality fresh produce and locally grown herbs.

Those that weren’t doing so before are now marking locally produced food to alert shoppers to its provenance. As well as offering shopkeepers advice like this, the project aims to encourage new food and drink businesses to open up and establish Tideswell as a “foodie destination”. To that end, it operates a cookery school, nano-brewery and courses for private and corporate clients and expects to be in profit within the next year.

It’s making steady progress. In May, more than 2,000 people descended on the village for the first-ever Tideswell Food Festival, during which the village’s retailers reported a three-fold sales increase. The project wants to make the festival an annual event and set up a loyalty scheme to encourage locals to make more regular shopping trips to the village. While elsewhere businesses are closing, in Tideswell they are opening.

In recent months, the Cherry Tree Café, gluten-free pudding company Litton Larder and ready meal supplier Natural Fayre have all opened (the latter two operate out of Taste Tideswell’s kitchen), creating jobs the project hopes will contribute to a 10% increase in employment in the local food economy by August.

With so much nearby retail competition, though, the stakes are high, admits Nicol. “Tideswell is at a tipping point,” he says. “We have a butcher, a baker and a greengrocer, but if we lose any one of those key shops people would no longer be able to do a complete shop in the village.”

There also remains an element of scepticism among villagers, who greeted the arrival of Nicol who spent decades working in the food industry and is the man responsible for the 1986 launch of Dolmio pasta sauces with suspicion. “They are not convinced by marketing bullshit,” he says. “When I arrived there were some unfounded rumours and a fair bit of antagonism, but over time most of the antagonism has been dulled.”

The other big challenge, says Nicol, is to change the way village retailers view the competition. “Local shopkeepers regard the competition as the shop across the street,” he explains. “Within this declining market, this internal fight for market share is self-defeating. They should be looking to increase the size of the local food economy and that way they could steal share from the multiples.”

It’s clear that Nicol faces an uphill battle in trying to change long-standing cultural attitudes. “Everybody is after the same penny,” says Carol Cox from Tindalls bakery, which now competes with the Cherry Tree Café for passing lunchtime trade. Cox doesn’t see retailers aligning themselves with Nicol’s vision for the village overnight. “It won’t be a five-minute wonder. It’s going to take a couple of years.”

Norman Gibbs agrees. And he says the fight can only be fought on one front. “The supermarkets have killed us we can’t compete with them on price. It has to be about quality rather than price.”

John Bright, Margaret Berres-ford, Tideswell Stores

“It is hard, especially being over the road from the Co-op. We have to be a lot keener on price”

Barbara Cooper, The Cherry Tree

“Most people go off to Morrisons to get the bulk of their food but we’re offering local people something different”

Matt Stafford, The Co-operative

“We’re open seven days a week from 8am to 10pm.” Villagers say the Co-op plays a vital role in Tideswell

Rob Walker, Peak District Dairy Farm Shop

“Where we score a little bit is we have niche shops that are attracting people into Tideswell”

Vikki Stafford, Peaches Greengrocer

“We sell affordable fresh produce that tastes great. Actually, we’re cheaper than the Co-op up the road”

Norman Gibbs, N. T. Gibbs Butchers

“We can only compete on quality. We’ve started making our own pork pies. We’re famous for our black pudding”

Lynne Burns, Peak Posies

“It’s about the big supermarkets. We have to offer a nicer service and seasonal flowers to compete”

Carol Cox, Tindalls of Tideswell

“We can’t compete with the supermarkets. We try and do something totally different”